A woman holds signs with pictures of Noa Argamani and another hostage held by Palestinian militants in Gaza during a demonstration for their release, in Tel Aviv in April 2024

Palestinian Territories (AFP) - Israel said its forces rescued four hostages alive from a Gaza refugee camp on Saturday as it intensified an assault despite scrutiny over a deadly strike on a UN-run school there.

The four had been kidnapped by the Palestinian Islamist militant group Hamas from the Nova music festival during the October 7 attacks that sparked the war, the army said.

Noa Argamani, 25, Almog Meir Jan, 21, Andrey Kozlov, 27, and Shlomi Ziv, 40, had been “rescued… from two separate locations in the heart of Nuseirat” in a “complex daytime operation”, the military said, adding they were in “good medical condition”.

The military had said, shortly before announcing the rare hostage rescue, that troops were targeting “terrorist infrastructure” around the Nuseirat camp.

A Gaza hospital said heavy Israeli strikes in central areas of the territory, including in Nuseirat camp, killed at least 15 people on Saturday.

Smoke billows following an Israeli airstrike in Deir al-Balah in the central Gaza Strip

Hamas said there were “dozens of bodies of martyrs and wounded lying on the ground, in the streets, and in safe rooms” and accused Israeli forces of engaging in “brutal and savage aggression on Nuseirat camp”.

The assault on Nuseirat came despite growing pressure on Israel after a strike on a UN-run school in the camp on Thursday that a Gaza hospital said had killed 37 people.

The Israeli military acknowledged carrying out the strike on the school, but said it killed 17 “terrorists”.

UNRWA, the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees that ran the school, condemned Israel for striking a facility it said had been housing 6,000 displaced people.

Children walk past a destroyed classroom where people were sheltering at a school run by the UN agency for Palestinian refugees

In a post on social media platform X, the agency said the “school turned shelter” had been hit “without prior warning”.

Israel accuses Hamas and its allies in Gaza of using civilian infrastructure, including UN-run facilities, as operational centres – charges the militants deny.

- ‘Defenceless’ -

The war, now in its ninth month, has brought widespread devastation to Gaza, with one in 20 people dead or wounded, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry. Most of Gaza’s 2.4 million inhabitants are displaced.

Displaced people flee from eastern parts of Deir al-Balah to the city centre, in the central Gaza Strip

This grim reality was underscored by a strike whose aftermath, depicted in an AFP video, saw men salvaging what they could from a bombed-out Gaza City building and carrying away a shrouded body in a debris-strewn alley.

Maher al-Mughair, who lives nearby, recounted the attack on Friday, saying: “We heard what sounded like a drone firing a missile, followed by another coming from an F-16 fighter jet.

“So we checked and found women and children in pieces. What did the children and women do wrong?” he told AFPTV.

In the same city overnight, five people were killed and seven wounded when an Israeli warplane bombed the Mhana family’s home in the Sheikh Radwan neighbourhood, emergency services said.

“We felt the shockwave in our homes,” Muhammad Abu Nahl told AFPTV.

Another resident, Yussef al-Dalu, was shocked his neighbour’s house had been reduced to rubble.

“I know that only defenceless civilians live in this house who are not part of any resistance (group),” he said.

The Israeli military acknowledged it conducted the deadly strike on the UN-run school, saying it targeted a Hamas base

The war was sparked by Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel which resulted in the deaths of 1,194 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli official figures.

Militants from Hamas and other Palestinian armed groups also took 251 hostages, 116 of whom remain in Gaza, including 41 the army says are dead.

Israel’s retaliatory military offensive has killed at least 36,801 people in Gaza, also mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-run territory’s health ministry.

Seventy were killed in the past 24 hours, according to the ministry.

- Political fallout -

Israel faced growing diplomatic isolation, with international court cases accusing it of war crimes and several European countries recognising a Palestinian state.

A picture released by the Israeli army shows an Israeli soldier aiming a machine gun through a window during operations in the Gaza Strip

Israel’s UN envoy, Gilad Erdan, said Friday he was “disgusted” that the Israeli military would be on a United Nations list of countries and armed forces that fail to protect children during war.

A diplomatic source told AFP that Hamas as well as Palestinian Islamic Jihad would also be included in the annual UN report, which highlights human rights violations against children in conflict zones and is expected by the end of June.

Both Hamas and Islamic Jihad are designated as terrorist organisations by several countries, including the United States and the European Union.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also faces pressure from within his right-wing government.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a coalition government of his right-wing Likud with far-right and ultra-orthodox Jewish parties

Israeli media said war cabinet member Benny Gantz cancelled a news conference that had been scheduled for Saturday, the deadline he gave Netanyahu last month to approve a post-war plan for Gaza.

Israeli media had speculated that Gantz, a centrist former military chief who had been one of Netanyahu’s main rivals before joining the war cabinet, had been set to carry through on a threat to quit the government.

- US diplomacy -

Latest efforts to mediate the first ceasefire in the conflict since a week-long pause in November appear to have stalled a week after US President Joe Biden offered a new roadmap.

Biden, under pressure for the war to end ahead of a November presidential election, said the plan was to halt the fighting for six weeks while hostages are exchanged for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

The plan would also involve the stepped-up delivery of aid into Gaza.

The G7 group of world powers, and Arab states, have backed the proposal.

Hamas has yet to respond. Israel has expressed openness to discussions but remains committed to destroying the Islamist group.

Major sticking points include Hamas insisting on a permanent truce and full Israeli withdrawal – demands Israel has rejected.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is set to visit Israel and key regional partners Egypt, Jordan and Qatar from Monday on his eighth Middle East trip since the war began.

The top US diplomat would “emphasise the importance of Hamas accepting the proposal on the table” which “would benefit both Israelis and Palestinians”, said State Department spokesman Matthew Miller.